Rigel’s Song


I’d like to tell you a story, a true one, about the most amazing dog I’ve ever known… Rigel.  This telling will likely be covered in several installments, for he did many things in his life, and many things happened… to both of us.

In June, 1995, Kaiymun, a wonderful Alaskan Malamute I was proud to have known, was struck by a car and killed.  He had lunged and gotten away from me when a roommate’s chocolate lab, aptly named “Misery,” took off and crossed the road.  She made it across unscathed. Kaiymun wasn’t so lucky, and was struck by a car speeding (exceeding the speed limit a LOT) at 60mph. I rode with him in the back of a pickup, trying to do whatever I could for him, but I could tell his lungs were filling with blood. When he stopped breathing, I performed CPR, trying to keep him alive, unable to accept that my best friend was about to die.  I’d called ahead to CSU vet hospital and was met in the parking lot, but it was already too late. Kaiymun was gone. I was devastated.  I’d had him since he was 8 months old, and we did almost everything together.  I never even traveled without him.

Shortly after that, I stopped by the Humane Society to ask that they not send any license renewal materials for him.  My loss was fresh, the wounds deep. I wasn’t ready for another dog, and I wanted as few unexpected reminders as possible.  That was, however, the first time I saw Rigel. He was there already. He caught my attention somehow, but I didn’t even notice his blind eye. There seemed to be an instant connection, though. I didn’t understand it, so I left.

Two months later, my best (human) friend sent me a check for my birthday, accompanied by a note telling me to use it to adopt a dog and to get some things for said dog.  My wounds still ran deep, but they were no longer fresh. I didn’t feel quite ready, but I trusted my friend.  I deposited the check and went down to the Humane Society.

There, I saw dog after dog, but felt nothing. Then I came across Rigel’s kennel, and there I stopped.  Once again, there was something about this dog, and once again his destroyed eye, the infection, and his general condition were completely invisible to me- odd, since I tend to notice EVERYTHING. It was as though he were reaching into my soul.

I took him to the play yard to spend a little time with him outside the kennel.  It was there that I finally noticed his condition, and suddenly his adoption was a conscious choice. Here stood a dog severely underweight, his left eye destroyed and shriveled, with pus leaking from said eye.  Do I follow my instincts, or do I follow common sense? I couldn’t let go of or break that connection I felt. I trusted my instincts and adopted him, and named him Rigel, after the star in the Orion constellation- so that when we were eventually parted, I could still look into the night sky and see him there.

By the time three months had passed he’d put on weight, was healthy, and his dead eye clear of infection. His coat was now sleek and shiny.  He’d also rescued me for the first time, from what would have been a 25 foot fall onto rocks when I was bouldering in a chimney crevice. We did everything together, and he didn’t need a leash anymore for most things. Rigel was already demonstrating himself to be the smartest and most amazing dog I’ve ever known.

Anyway, it’s three months later and we’re shopping in the Old Town area of Fort Collins, where there was a holiday festival of sorts going on. A woman and her 2-year-old come up to me and tell me they know my dog. They tell me his name was Timo (Teemo). They tell me of the abuse. They tell me of his disappearance.  Given his condition when I adopted him, I believed them. I was rather apprehensive. I didn’t want Rigel’s previous owner(s) to know where he was or who he was with. Fortunately, the woman was pleased by Rigel’s improved condition and promised discretion, and to never to tell Rigel’s former owner that he still lived. I was still terrified that his former owner might discover him. I knew Rigel could never return to them.

Over the years, Rigel proved himself again and again. He prevented what might have been a deadly bouldering fall for me.  He found the way back down the mountain when my cousin and I were hiking and got lost in a sudden snow storm. He’d accompany a roommate to where she worked as a CNA in a convalescent home and worked as a therapy dog there. Rigel was now known and loved everywhere, from the mountains to the town center. Rarely would people see me without Rigel.

Then I got sick.  My blood was making cells, but they wouldn’t survive to make it to circulation. I had no immune system at all. In addition, I developed a kidney disease, developing a form that was considered universally terminal. At diagnosis, I was told I’d most likely be dead in 2 years.

Rigel poured his love and strength into me. He wasn’t a service dog, and I never even attempted to pass him off as one. However, he helped me as much as any service dog has helped anyone.  When I was in the hospital with life-threatening infections, he was permitted to visit- and I was told I always looked better after his visits. When I was home, yet too ill to go out, I could call up the supermarket half a block away, send Rigel over there, where someone would meet him, put what I’d ordered in his backpack, and send him home… Rigel was doing my shopping.  He became the one being I could depend on, and was my closest support system during that time. There were times my body wanted to quit, but I’d think of him and find the strength to keep fighting.  Eventually, I began to recover. I finished my undergraduate studies and moved to Baltimore to begin a career in research.

I didn’t like Baltimore. Even though I grew up in suburbia, and had spent a good part of my youth in and around big cities, I was never comfortable in them.  I found Baltimore to be dirty, and in the year I lived there, I witnessed many abuses and many crimes. I even reported a burglary taking place in the unit next to mine in the townhouse complex I was renting at.

One day, I came home from work to find Rigel missing.  Some kids had witnessed someone taking him from my yard.  I was devastated and distraught, looking everywhere for him, offering a reward.  I let the neighborhood watch know as well.  They were the ones who eventually came across him. Rigel had escaped his captor(s) and was making his way home at the time.  I don’t know what had taken place while he was gone, but after that he developed severe separation anxiety. Of course, I wasn’t leaving him in the yard alone after that.  He was going to daycare when I wasn’t home.  Even when we moved to Washington DC, though, the anxiety remained.  He’d chew through doors and break windows if left alone.  I tried to do all I could for him, but I couldn’t alleviate that separation anxiety.  When we were together, he was his normal self. Apart, he was a destructive force. I wished with all my heart he could tell me what had happened.

I later read about a dog that had had a similar experience… disappearing for a day or so and coming back with severe anxiety issues, almost identical to Rigel’s.  That dog had been a victim of bestiality… Essentially, the dog had been raped. I’ll never know if that’s what happened to Rigel, but I’ll always wonder.

Ultimately, we returned to Colorado, and upon our return, Rigel’s separation anxiety issues ceased almost immediately. It was as though he knew he was safe and had come home.  As always, I rented near a park, and everyone in the vicinity soon knew Rigel.  We stayed there until the end of his days.

Rigel was 18 when he died.  I’d known his time was coming for months.  He’d lost the ability to control his bowels (he’d wear Depends inside, with a hole cut for his tail- worked better than the doggy diapers I tried) and had trouble walking by then.  I refused to let go of him until he went on his own, or until he told me it was time.  There came a warm, July day when Rigel refused to get up.  He looked at me, and something went between us.  I understood.  He had had enough.  It was time.

Once again I’m crying as I type this, for I prefer to remember all of our good times.  Still, his last day was decent.  I kept him comfortable and gave him all of his favorite things.  Then, when the time came, I let go. That was 6.5 years ago.

Years before, I had vowed that when Rigel was gone, I’d one day have another Shiloh Shepherd.  I would name my dog Galen, and train him or her to be a therapy dog, and to scent cancer. My dog would be part of the medical practice I hoped to one day have, working alongside me… and I felt Rigel would approve.

Circumstances haven’t been kind to me, what with the accident, the spine surgeries, and the immune deficiency, but that dream, conceived WITH Rigel, is beginning to shape itself into a new reality.  My circumstances have forced that dream to be modified and adjusted, but life always requires us to modify and adjust our dreams. What’s important is that Galen has been born, and soon he or she will become my new partner in life, shepherding me into recovery, even as I nurture him/her into the wonderful and amazing dog I know he or she will be.  Together, I know we will be happy, and I hope together we can see other dreams reborn, and new dreams blossom.  It is a new tomorrow.  I know Rigel would approve.


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